Planet Killer

NASA Doesn’t Receive Enough Money for Mandated Asteroid Search

Article written: 13 Aug , 2009
Updated: 24 Dec , 2015

In 2005, the US Congress mandated that NASA discover 90 percent of all near-Earth objects 140 meters in diameter or greater by 2020. But they forgot one minor detail: Congress or the administration did not request or appropriate any new funds to meet this objective, and with NASA’s existing budget, there is no way NASA can meet the mandated goal.

Does anyone else see a pattern here?

“For the first time, humanity has the capacity and the audacity to avoid a natural disaster,” says Irwin Shapiro of the Harvard-Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics (CfA) in Cambridge, Mass., who headed a National Research Council panel to asses NASA’s progress in reaching the asteroid detection goal . “It really is a question of how much to invest in an insurance policy for the planet.”

NASA was also directed by the Bush administration to build spacecraft to return to the Moon, and perhaps go on to Mars, but do the job (as well as complete the space station and make sure the shuttles can fly safely) with no real increase in budget.

From the report:

Currently, the U.S. government spends a relatively small amount of money funding a search and survey program to discover and track near-Earth objects, and virtually no money on studying methods of mitigating the hazards posed by such objects. Although Congress has mandated that NASA conduct this survey program and has established goals for the program, neither Congress nor the administration has sought to fund it with new appropriations. As a result, NASA has supported this activity by taking funds from other programs, while still leaving a substantial gap between the goals established by Congress and the funds needed to achieve them.

The report is available here (download the free pdf version)

But in summary, the report says that since only limited facilities are currently involved in the asteroid survey/discovery effort, NASA cannot meet the goals of the Congressional mandate on the existing budget. Instead, the three current survey efforts dedicated to the problem, supported at current levels, will likely find only about 15%.

The report also says that Harvard-Smithsonian’s Minor Planet Center is more than capable of handling the observations of the congressionally mandated survey, but there isn’t enough funds for adequate staffing.

If this is true, the facilities to do the job appear to be in place, and no new observatories need to be built or spacecraft need to be launched. How much more money would it take to hire enough people?

However, only three surveys are currently involved in the search (Catalina Sky Survey, Spacewatch and Lincoln Near Earth Asteroid Research), and the panel suggests that more telescopes and spacecraft would be beneficial to the search. Several ground-based telescopes have been proposed or are currently under development that could contribute substantially to meeting the goal established by Congress. However, none has yet been fully funded, nor principally dedicated to the NEO discovery goal.

Right now, the US is the only country that currently has an operating survey/detection program for discovering near-Earth objects. Canada and Germany are both building spacecraft that may contribute to the discovery of near-Earth objects, but neither mission will detect fainter or smaller objects than ground-based telescopes.

But the US isn’t alone in the non-funding of asteroid searches. “Virtually no international funds are spent supporting ground-based NEO surveys, and international NEO discovery efforts are largely conducted on an ad hoc, voluntary, or amateur basis. NASA is the agency that has funded more than 97 percent of the discoveries of NEOs in the last decade,” says the report.

Sources: USA Today, National Acadamies Press

17 Responses

  1. Savino says

    Well… let´s hope for ESA or China to do the job!

  2. Brett says

    Yes, I would love to see NASA with a bigger budget. But it works both ways. Perhaps if NASA were a bit more responsible in stopping waste by ever increasing scope creep and underestimating costs, more money would be available.

  3. Jon Hanford says

    I find it interesting that this report surfaces just as astronomers are studying the recent impact event on Jupiter and nearly 15 years after Shoemaker-Levy 9 impacted Jupiter. Sure, the politicians don’t see any short term benefits from this research probably because they think no catastrophic event will happen in the foreseeable future. But with only about 15% of the estimated NEOs located, an impact on Earth could happen tomorrow. We don’t know anything about 85% of NEOs that may pose an immediate threat. And no viable mitigation programs. I agree that the US should not have to go it alone here, as an impact may affect many (or all) nations. Unfortunately the situation may not change for decades.

  4. SteveZodiac says

    The asteroid belts contain mineral resources which we could exploit to fund the protection of life on Earth. We have proven robot probe technology which could assay them, and (admittedly we don’t have this tech yet) mine them At the same time we could properly map the NEOs. Even if the figures here
    are wildly exaggerated it would be worth it. NASA’s entire budget for 1958-2008 was £416bn

  5. Aqua says

    I agree with Brett…AND

    Consider the size of the bureaucacy NASA has become and how decision making by politically motivated appointees influences our national space agency and there you have it – goaless incompetence. What happened to the true visionaries? They seem to be religated to watching from the sidelines…

  6. Aqua says

    Hmm.. kind of makes a feller wonder how many times this kind of thing has happened in the past? Not gov’t snafu so much as other meteor/cometary strikes…

    It is entirely possible that there have been earth shattering impacts in the remote past which ‘reset the clock’ as far as human evolution is concerned. Whether or not that is a good thing is another question entirely…

    I can see it now, we get health care going, we settle in Iraq and Afghanistan, come up with new economic models for our expanding worldwide economies, cure cancer, come up with anti-aging remedies and WHAM! Back to the caves…

  7. Astrofiend says

    Jon Hanford Says:
    August 13th, 2009 at 6:54 am

    “Sure, the politicians don’t see any short term benefits from this research probably because they think no catastrophic event will happen in the foreseeable future.”

    I swear, half the pollies in US congress probably believe, either overtly or deep down, that God would never let an asteroid impact this planet unless it is in His plan for Armageddon, in which case they’d be stoked about it happening and probably actively pray for it to occur. Think about how scary that prospect is for a second. Sure, they’ll propose that NASA takes a look for these things, but when it comes to ponying up the dosh, I wouldn’t be surprised if somewhere deep in their mind that argument gets trotted out as a valid reason not to fund it.

    Now I’m not anti-religious at all, but the fact that a US president could never be elected these days without professing to be Christian is outrageous. I’m not sure of the denominational breakdown of congress either, but I’m willing to bet that almost all elected members are either overtly religious or else keep their thoughts to themselves regarding their agnosticism or atheism. It is these people that are making crucial funding decisions in regards to science! When the science even looks like impinging on their belief system, how can we possibly expect anything but stubborn resistance or lack of funds?

    I swear, we need more scientists in congress. The problem is – what kind of scientist has any care for politics at all? If even a jaded public recognise how meaningless, shallow and cynical that world really is, what hope for those fascinated with science, who generally hold themselves to a higher standard of integrity and honesty?

  8. Pvt.Pantzov says

    i’ve been trying to convince them (in my small insignificant ways) for years to use the fear angle to obtain further funding.

    the “good part” is that this is an actual possibility so the funding won’t be wasted, provided that it goes toward what it is intended for.

    of course what we won’t tell the public is that even with early warning, anything with significant mass and velocity is unstoppable at our current level of technology. why depress them? 🙂

  9. No wonder the US and UK governments get on so well.

    Both mandate policies and then don’t fund them!

  10. Torbjorn Larsson OM says

    This is one of those processes that should be supported regardless of other policy, for several reasons: it affects Earth, it explores and mitigate risk, it builds knowledge. Actually it could be a major goal, as in developing methods of full risk mitigation and/or NEO visits and utilization as stepping stone outwards and/or infrastructure development (in the line of deep space networks: for example we lost Cassini data because of lack of infrastructure for 24-7 communication).

    Therefore it’s disturbing that they are squandering resources, such as when they nearly closed the Arecibo down which unless I’m mistaken still has a vital role here.

    “For the first time, humanity has the capacity and the audacity to avoid a natural disaster,” says Irwin Shapiro of the Harvard-Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics (CfA) in Cambridge, Mass.,

    i’ve been trying to convince them (in my small insignificant ways) for years to use the fear angle to obtain further funding.

    But this is disturbing policy too.

    First, in general, it doesn’t really matter if we mitigate these risks or not. Life has shown itself robust by surviving so long, inclusive impactors. [It’s an observer effect involved, nevertheless the survival time period tells us things.] And there is no lack of risk factors that will kill humans specifically.

    But it matters for society, and it is probably a cheap investment. However, risk management devolves to both communal effort (say, car belt laws) and private efforts (say, choosing a car trip instead of a bike ride). This will be an effort that should be shared, so it behooves the society to manage it responsibly.

    The fear perspective is erroneous, and as the public recognizes this it undermines policy and risk the outcome. Better would be to use science methods and inform of risk cost and ROI.

    Second, depending on your definition of “natural disaster”, society has avoided and even prevented them before. The best example is the prevention of aerosols destroying the ozone layer. That could instead be used to exemplify that _we can and should do this, we have done it before for good (social and economical) reasons_.

    Maybe Shapiro is trying to inject a gee whiz effect that this type of disaster is entirely natural, but then he should also keep pushing on the _prevention of an entirely natural disaster uniqueness_. As his presentation is related now, it’s neither the one nor the other.

  11. Torbjorn Larsson OM says

    It is entirely possible that there have been earth shattering impacts in the remote past which ‘reset the clock’ as far as human evolution is concerned.

    I don’t get this.

    First, there is no ‘clock’ measuring out an evolution path (or even rate), as such paths are known to be contingent. There was no teleology, no set path, not even such an implied global ‘goal’ involved in any evolution anywhere, ever.

    Impacts can have effect, one such probably let mammals take over warm blooded species niches left by most dinosaur’s extinction. But we can’t tell beforehand what they will effect.

    Second, there is, I believe, no sign of such severe effects in human DNA variation, so I would suspect that it is entirely impossible to entertain the hypothesis that it happened.

    AFAIU humans have signs of one severe population bottleneck akin to cheetah’s. (Which, I believe, has experienced two.) Apparently one can model, based on measurement of gene variation, that the effective number of reproducing humans were then down to the order of, IIRC, ~ 2000 or so. (As a comparison, I believe the rather culled population of chimps shows a similar least population size of ~ 20 000. I haven’t checked any of these numbers tho’.) We very nearly didn’t make it.

    [Another argument for NEO risk mitigation. Should descendants of survivors merely lie down and take it, up their lazy ass as it where? Of course not?!]

    But this bottleneck, IIRC happening early on while humans were still populating Africa, isn’t tied to any impacts. I believe the suspect has been severe drought and associated environmental change. The chimps, which populated other niches, apparently weathered (sic!) that better.

  12. Torbjorn Larsson OM says

    I’m willing to bet that almost all elected members are either overtly religious or else keep their thoughts to themselves regarding their agnosticism or atheism

    Astrofiend, meet “Pete” Stark, as of early 2007 the only declared non-believer in US Congress:

    Fortney “Pete” Stark Jr., an 18-term Democratic veteran of the House, made the unusual declaration after being queried by secular groups running a contest to find the highest-ranking atheist in American politics.

    “When the Secular Coalition asked me to complete a survey on my religious beliefs, I indicated I am a Unitarian who does not believe in a supreme being,” Mr. Stark, 75, said in an statement emailed to The New York Sun.

    Atheist groups hailed Mr. Stark yesterday as the first member of Congress to declare that he does not believe in God.

    Seems you are perfectly “politically” correct. 😀

  13. Ok, let me see if I have this scenario correct…
    NASA: We have found a large(insert object here), heading straight for us. It will strike somewhere on the planet, causing mass destruction over all the earth.

    Government: Ok, were going to do….what?

    My point: even if we see it coming, what exactly are we going to do, other than perhaps hide in a cave somewhere? What is the point to this.
    You have today. Make the best of it TODAY. Don’t be concerned with tomorrow.

  14. Michael812 says

    Sorry but as usual Meier scooped the scientists by decades:

  15. Spoodle58 says

    Well I think a lot people missed the point here.

    We as a group of people are interested in general space related stuff, some, if not all of us would like to work in the any area space related.

    A project that tries to detected and monitor NEO threats, gives people like us jobs in astronomy etc while at the same time scientific research can be carried out with the added benefit of possibly predicting a NEO impact with Earth so we may at the most evacuate the impact area and or take other as yet unknown steps to survive the impact, its possible nothing will ever happen or its possible that something will and we can’t do anything.

    BUT the real bonus is, we the people interested in space, get jobs in space related stuff, that is what it all boils down to.

  16. Silver Thread says

    It would have been better to tell congress that Apophis was going to smack the planet on 2029. Then tell the public what the reaction of Congress was. Guaranteed NASA wouldn’t be short funding, though it would probably also become another branch of the Military.

  17. Paul Eaton-Jones says

    Torborn. You are correct in thinking that humans nearly didn’t make it. Some geneticists agree with geologists that the Mount Toba eruption c80,000 years ago reduced the human population to around 5,000. Pretty damned close.

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